Think about French Open and you end up visualizing a battle of attrition on the red dirt.
Baseline slugfests, long drawn rallies, powerful ground-strokes — at times with heavy topspin, clever use of the drop-shot and eventually a clay court specialist coming up trumps.
If the eventual champion happens to be from Spain it is certainly not a coincidence.
From a broader perspective every subsequent edition of the year’s second major at Roland Garros more or less follows the same script. High bounce, speed drastically cut down, extended running time, physically strong players — mostly waiting for their opponents to make an error, and sometimes forcing the error, and a happy ending (read one of the pre-tournament favorites winning)…it can’t get more predictable than this.
However, there are examples to the contrary. Just as an otherwise mundane script can at times be tweaked to give a refreshingly different take, there are instances in the French Open where, against all the odds, serve and volley specialists have performed beyond expectations and thereby proved that if your game is consistent, the nature of the surface is simply immaterial.
It can be argued that had these players been consistent over a longer period they could have had better results that they actually had. Having said that, the year (or years in some case) in which they transformed their expertise on the slow clay, the results were outstanding to say the least and made up for great viewing.
A case study of a few serve and volley specialists who, the results notwithstanding, gave a good account of themselves at the Roland Garros and thereby proved a point — on clay, serve and volley is actually no folly, if done with precision.
John McEnroe (USA)
French Open record: 25–10
Best Result: Finalist (1984)
Before you say ‘You Cannot Be Serious!’ let’s reaffirm the fact that John McEnroe was one of the most consistent players at the French Open at the peak of his career.
For someone known better for his exploits at Wimbledon (three titles) and US Open (four wins), his on court battles with Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors and his shenanigans, McEnroe surprised many by doing well in Paris year after year.
In 10 visits to the French capital, of them four happened after he was well past his prime (after his 1986 sabbatical), McEnroe was a finalist on one occasion, a semi-finalist on another and a two-time quarter-finalist. The American reserved his best for 1984.
McEnroe beat clay court specialists Horatio De La Pena, Jose Higueras (a former coach of Roger Federer) and Jimmy Arias before toppling Jimmy Conners in the last four to set up a final with Ivan Lendl.
Applying his serve-and-volley skills on clay to a great effect McEnroe on the first two sets 6–3, 6–2 and was on the verge of winning when fatigue and his temperamental outbursts got the better of him.
Lendl, almost a Tour veteran with 40-plus titles but no major win, mounted a comeback and won the next three sets 6–4, 7–5, 7–5 to win his maiden Grand Slam. The loss ended the American’s 39-match winning streak and was one of the three he suffered in the whole year (82–3 record).
McEnroe came back strong in 1985, beating Swedish claycourt specialists Henrik Sundstrom and Joakim Nystrom en route to the semi-finals. But there the eventual champion (Mats Wilander) proved too good for him.
Stefan Edberg (Sweden)
French Open record: 30–13
Best Result: Finalist (1989)
Stefan Edberg and French Open made an odd couple.
For a player who was up to the net almost immediately after completing his serve, the back court slug fest at Roland Garros was always going to be difficult.
“The clay surface is not a problem but that extra week makes it difficult,” he said once about the tournament. Having said that, he made it to the second week of the competition on six of the 13 times he participated in.
To his credit, the genial Swede slowly but surely, adjusted his game to the surface and became more consistent with each passing year.
A junior French Open champion in 1983, Edberg’s best came in 1989 when he made all the way to the final. Edberg put out a young Goran Ivanisevic and an in-form Alberto Mancini to set up a semi-final clash with perennial nemesis Boris Becker.
The straight sets (6–1, 6–3, 7–6) win over Mancini, in the last eight, was arguably the best match the Swede played on clay in his career, considering the fact that the Argentine had won big events at Monte Carlo and Rome in the run-up to the major and was considered the favourite. Edberg then put out Becker in a five-set thriller to set up a final with rookie American Michael Chang.
The Swede went on to lose the final despite being two-sets-to-one up and that remained a lifelong disappointment as he never got another chance to complete his major collection.
However, in 1996, his farewell year Edberg put out Carlos Moya and then had his revenge over Chang, before hanging up his boots.
Boris Becker (Germany)
French Open record: 26–9
Best Result: SF (1987, 1989, 1991)
Before we start describing Becker’s good performances in Paris, it is imperative to state that in his 15-year long professional career the German never won a title on clay.
That very fact makes his three semi-final appearances at Roland Garros extra special. For a player whose career was marred by inconsistencies, Becker was a tad more consistent in Paris.
Between 1985 and 1991, Becker made it at least to the pre-quarter finals in five of the seven years. In 1987, he beat formidable players like Henrik Sundstrom, Jimmy Arias and Jimmy Connors before coming up short against Mats Wilander in the last four.
In 1989, what was by far the best year of his professional career, Becker’s back-to-back triumphs at Wimbledon and the US Open were preceded by a second semi-final appearance at Roland Garros. Two years later he repeated the feat.
Becker didn’t play in Paris owing to injuries (opting to keep fit for Wimbledon instead) in the in the latter stages of his career and that prevented him from having a few more tries at the elusive title.
Patrick Rafter (Australia)
French Open record: 12–8
Best Result: SF (1997)
The Australian was definitely at ease on faster surfaces but when he adapted to the slow clay the results were quite impressive.
When Rafter came to Paris in 1997, he didn’t have a great record to boast of at Roland Garros the fourth round on debut in 1994 being his best.
But in that year, the Australian’s prowess came to the fore. Commanding wins over clay specialists like Andrea Gaudenzi, Frederic Fontang and Galo Blanco and an equally convincing win over 1993 semi-finalist Richard Krajicek, set Rafter up for a semi-final with two-time champion Sergi Bruguera.
The Spaniard was himself coming back after a poor run of form and the match turned out to a classic. Rafter was relentless against a patient Bruguera and the crowd egged on the former, enjoying his aggression to the hilt.
However, after almost three hours, it was the Spaniard who edged through but Rafter did carry forward that form and captured his maiden major at New York later that year.
Two years on, Rafter thrashed a rookie named Roger Federer, one set being a bagel, a rarity with the Swiss these days.
Tim Henman (Great Britain)
French Open record: 16–12
Best Result: SF (2004)
You may argue why Tim Henman is in this list.
But for someone who was always expected to win the Wimbledon, and never managed to go beyond the semi-finals, reaching the last four stages at Paris, where he was least expected to, was certainly special.
More so, if you consider that he had not made beyond the fourth round at any other event besides Wimbledon (till then), and had never advanced to the second week in Paris. Henman’s moment of glory came in 2004, almost the twilight of his career.
The Briton, returning to the site of his biggest career win (the Paris Masters) survived some real tough matches to reach the semi-finals against the tournament favourite, Guillermo Coria.
He pulverized the Argentine in the opening two sets and an upset was in the cards. But Coria pulled through eventually.
But by then Henman had given his fans many moments to remember, besides Wimbledon, that is.
Richard Krajicek (The Netherlands)
French Open record: 22–10
Best Result: SF (1993)
The 1996 Wimbledon champion was palpably at ease on faster surfaces.
However, in 1993 he exceeded expectations at the French capital.
After taking out both the finalists at the previous year’s Olympic Games in Barcelona — Marc Rosset and Jordi Arrese — in earlier rounds, the Dutchman bested Spaniard Carlos Costa in five sets in the Round of 16.
It took another five sets to get past formidable Czech Karel Novacek in the quarter-finals and by the time he faced nemesis Jim Courier in the semis, Krajicek had run out of steam, losing in four sets.
To his credit though Krajicek used the experience well to pocket his lone career clay-court title at Barcelona the following year.
Jana Novotna (Czech Republic)
French Open record: 38–14
Best Result: SF (1990, 1996)
The art of serve-and-volley is a rarity among the women players. So when a few specialists do turn up it is difficult to ignore them.
Jana Novotna was probably the last woman exponent of the art. Known more for her repeated failed attempts at Wimbledon and the emotional outbursts thereafter, little know that Novotna was one of the most consistent performers at the French Open.
The Czech made it to the quarter-finals on four occasions and to the semi-finals, twice.
In 1990, she beat a fast rising Gabriela Sabatini and a veteran Katarina Maleeva before coming up short against Steffi Graf in the last four. Six years on, she shocked three times champion Monica Seles in the quarters before Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario came between her and the final.
And who can forget her third round match with American Chanda Rubin, where despite being 5–1 up and holding match points, she went on to lose the match.
For the record, a week after her emotional triumph at Wimbledon in 1998, Novotna won a tournament on clay in her native Prague. Now that’s some variety.
Martina Navratilova (USA)
French Open record: 51–11
Best Result: Champion (1982, 1984)
Apologies for featuring the legend at the end but only this can be a perfect finale.
In any case what can we say about a player whose entire career, in itself, is a statement? For someone who, didn’t play in the French Open between 1975 and 1981, and made only two appearances after 1988, Navratilova has an outstanding record at Roland Garros.
Admitted that only two of her 18 career majors (singles) have come in Paris and that she finished second-best to compatriot Chris Evert (a seven-time French Open winner) on more occasions than one, but still her win-loss ratio is astounding.
While her maiden triumph in Paris, over Andrea Jagger, was a straight-forward affair, it was her “upset” win over Evert in 1984 that was her defining moment at Roland Garros.
Navratilova lost to Evert thrice in the French Open final, all three-set affairs. However, her win in 1984 happened to be in straight sets, comprehensive may be is the right word.
Evert’s style was very unlike her own and more suited to the surface used in Paris. And that probably make Navratilova’s 1984 triumph at Roland Garros special.